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Almost three decades after leaving Madison to chase his ambitions, Glenn Silber returns this week for a 30th anniversary screening of The War at Home and the world premiere of his new documentary, Labor Day.
Co-directed by Barry Brown, The War at Home chronicled the Madison antiwar movement and was nominated for an Academy Award. It launched Silber on a career trajectory that now comes full circle: After 20 years as an award-winning producer for network newsmagazines, he is back to his beginnings. He calls Labor Day, his first feature-length documentary in almost a quarter-century, The War at Home, Part 2.
"I'm not talking about Iraq and Afghanistan," he explains. "It's all tied up with why I decided to leave a very nice, cushy job."
Encompassing last fall's economic meltdown, the new film spans an 18-month effort by the Service Employees International Union to mobilize hundreds of thousands of its members during the last election cycle. Labor Day also represents a return to the progressive roots Silber put down in Madison as a UW student and to his independence as a filmmaker.
In seven years at CBS and the last 13 at ABC's 20/20, Silber collected a George Polk Award, an Emmy and other trophies for excellence in broadcast journalism. "I got to a place where they offered me as much money as you can make at that network as a producer," he says.
When his contract came up for renewal, Silber continues, "I was on top of the world, but my personal joy was tempered by what I saw as our country going down not just the wrong path, but possibly worse." Iraq, Afghanistan, the Hurricane Katrina debacle, the housing bubble and other legacies of the Bush administration left him "really upset with the world."
Leaving ABC was an agonizing decision, but Silber wanted to help reverse the nation's course. "It's a classic kind of conceit, I guess, that one person can make a difference. But I have a lot of skills that most people don't have. And it's not just my ability to interview someone or to produce something, it's also a worldview and a critical capacity that you have to have as a reporter."
Silber decided to revive Catalyst Media, his production company, in partnership with his wife and co-producer, Claudia Vianello. The couple had shared production duties on El Salvador: Another Vietnam (which scored his second Oscar nomination in 1981), Atomic Artist (1983) and Troupers (1986) before Silber signed on at CBS and Vianello went on to develop a long string of TV and movie projects.
At 59, and after 20 years at the networks, Silber has a fuller, tougher face than he did circa 1980, when he left Madison. The eyes are keen. His speaking cadence is tight, quick and on point, as if edited in his mind under looming broadcast deadlines.
"After 2000 and 2004, I just couldn't live with another loss like that," Silber says. Barack Obama had not yet declared his candidacy, but "I knew that Hillary was going to run, I thought Edwards was going to run, and I knew about SEIU." With more than 2 million members, he says, the union is "the biggest-kept secret in the country in terms of being a political player. I'd seen what they'd done in '04 and knew it was going to be a major throw-down for them."
Unsure how the union's role in the election would play out, Silber started doing internal production work for SEIU. This afforded him behind-the-scenes access to its members' political action conference, and the "Walk a Day in My Shoes" exercise, in which Obama, Clinton and other candidates vying for the union's endorsement spent a day working alongside an SEIU member. Skeptical at first, he found the experience of filming these episodes very moving.
"If you talk to any of the candidates who did it," he says, "they'll probably tell you it was the most memorable day of their campaign."
When SEIU settled on endorsing Obama, the union asked Silber to produce a video that would introduce their candidate to its members. Visiting Chicago's far south side and filming child-care and home-care workers who were earning $5 or $6 an hour brought Silber to a deeper understanding of SEIU.
"They represent a lot of low-wage workers," he says. "I felt like, someone's got to do this. You know the corporations have lots of lobbyists. Who's standing up for workers?"
When he screened the Obama short at last year's Service Employees International Union convention, Silber says, "people went crazy. The room was on fire." Recognizing the possibility of a strong narrative arc, he began to entertain the vague notion of producing a full-scale documentary. He proposed covering the Democratic National Convention from SEIU's perspective. The union's leaders approved.
The idea snowballed in the following months to include SEIU's Take Back Labor Day concert in St. Paul, across the river from the Republican National Convention, featuring Atmosphere, Steve Earle, Tom Morello and others. Some of this footage was edited and posted on YouTube in a bid to get out the youth vote and counter the initial excitement generated by Sarah Palin's nomination as the GOP's vice presidential candidate. It drew thousands of hits.
Labor Day includes concert footage; interviews with ABC's Ted Koppel, U.S. Rep. Dennis Kucinich, Gov. Bill Richardson, Newsweek's Jonathan Alter, key union figures and SEIU's rank and file; and clips of Obama, Clinton, Edwards, Joe Biden, Ted Kennedy, John McCain and Palin.
Silber began to take more initiative, filming union members on the side as they fanned out across the country and went door-to-door to get out the vote. He shot in more cities than SEIU had authorized, stowing the footage away for possible use. "This whole thing is 100% seat-of-the-pants, on the fly," he says. "I didn't have much of their attention because they were so busy. I knew what I was doing. I don't need somebody to tell me what to do."
By election night, Silber was first in Indiana and then, after a mad drive, in Chicago's Grant Park to capture Obama's - and the union's - triumph. Exhilarated, he assembled a long rough cut of the film and screened it for SEIU officials. "It was," he says, "like the last two years of their life flashing before their eyes."
The union came through with funding to complete the film, and is acknowledged in the credits for its cooperation and financial backing. Silber understands that taking money from the subjects of your documentary invites criticism on ethical grounds. "I don't give a rip, okay? That's the short answer," he says, citing his reputation all the way back to his first documentary, An American Ism: Joe McCarthy, in 1978.
As they worked toward the film's completion, Silber, Vianello and their editor logged 12-hour days and six-day weeks. Silber went back and interviewed a handful of key union officials, including the SEIU's president, vice president and secretary-treasurer, who infuse Labor Day with retrospective insight. "I felt this expressed the urgency and the passion and, frankly, some of the anger that I had, that we had come to this point," he says. "And this is why I left ABC. I had to get this film out."
Silber has shown the film to friends and says they have recognized in it "a paradigm of how a union gets involved in a political situation," marshals its membership, conceives a strategy and executes it.
The Service Employees International Union is deploying these same methods now to drive health care reform, Silber notes, but he harbors no illusions regarding the heavy lifting still to be done.
"We're at this crisis in this country, and I think on the one-year anniversary of Barack Obama's historic election, people better take a really deep breath," he says. "Maybe people thought it would be easy, and he'd wave his magic Obama wand and we'd have health care and then we'd have immigration reform. No. The forces that ruined this country are out there, and they're not going to give an inch. As Rush Limbaugh has said repeatedly, they're very happy to see Barack Obama fail."
Silber intends to keep his camera pointed at solutions to the crises at hand. Now that Labor Day is in the can, he plans to move on to immigration reform. "I feel," he says, "like I'm at the top of my game now."